In the wake of the publication of the final Harry Potter novel, I would not have wanted to be JK Rowling. I know she has a charmed life, earns more money in a minute than I do in a year and what have you, but the weight of expectation which fell on her must have been absolutely crippling. Everybody and their mother was falling over themselves to see what she did next, to praise or denigrate her next novel. It’s no surprise that after this one, she adopted a pseudonym, is what I’m saying.
“A Big Novel About A Small Town” is how it’s billed. I think everyone knows that Rowling’s debut novel for adults deals with the fallout when town councillor Barry Fairbrother dies unexpectedly and leaves the titular vacancy on the council. His death and the fight for his empty seat are the catalyst for ugly goings on which sheer off the idyllic coating of Pagford and reveal the nastiness lurking beneath. Anyone who has ever spent any amount of time as a resident in a place such as Pagford will find all of it so very familiar.
I had some issues. Firstly, yes, it’s a big novel. But it doesn’t need to be. When Pottermania exploded, they stopped editing Rowling’s books and lord knows that was a mistake. She is a very good writer, she has an ear for great dialogue, but she has overstuffed this novel and it could really use a filleting. Also, she’s filled it mostly with crudely drawn stereotypes, rather than living breathing characters and that made it difficult for me to fully connect with the machinations of the novel. The Weedon family and the Price patriarch are the main culprits of lazy styling, I thought.
There are a lot of characters too, which is another aspect of the novel she could have trimmed. The lesbian sister storyline, for starters, could have easily been jettisoned without harming the flow or structure of the book. It does mean that the book is never boring, of course. I have been something of a Debbie Downer here, but I did enjoy it. It was an easy and mostly fun read, and Rowling’s marshalling of her big cast and multiple arcs is always impressive. Ultimately though, this is so twee and safe (for all her use of the word “cunt”, there’s no denying this is a safe book, I feel) that I have to file it under “good” rather than “great”. It feels like a Jilly Cooper novel mated with a Joanna Trollope one. There’s undeniably a lot of people who would eat that up. I am not one of them.